Chabal Tak'in: "There is No Money"
AUTONOMOUS MUNICIPALITY OF POLHO, SAN PEDRO CHENALHÓ, CHIAPAS HIGHLANDS, SPRING 1998: The Smoke rises at dawn from small cooking fires next to the tents and cardboard shacks where 7,533 refugees of war now live. Their encampments cover almost every hillside that the eye can see. The Red Cross has a medical tent here and distributes a little corn-meal, beans, used clothing and medical supplies to the desplazados -- the displaced ones -- who were driven from their homes and farmlands by the military, the policy, the large landowners and their paramilitary groups.
Everyone here speaks Tzotzil. Only some, mostly men and children, speak Spanish. Tzotzil is a florid ancient Maya tongue with many guttural CH-sounds that seems phonetically more Asian than Hispanic. For example: Chabal Tak'in means, "there is no money." Chabal Tak'in en Polho.
A half-hour's walk through the woods is Acteal, site of the Christmas week massacre of 45 unarmed Tzotzil peasants by paramilitary troops who, it has been widely documented, were protected during their atrocity by state police. The Acteal massacre on December 22, 1997, caused an international scandal that toppled some high Mexican officials, including then-governor of Chiapas César Ruíz Ferro and then-federal interior minister Emiliano Chaufyette, who were deemed responsible for the events leading to the massacre.
Ruíz Ferro was replaced by a new appointee: Interim Governor Roberto Albores Guillen, political blood brother of the new Interior Minister Francisco Labastida Ochoa. But life didn't improve for the peasants of Acteal or the highlands region. It got worse. The mass media soon moved on to other scandals. The desplazados are still here, struggling to survive day to day, a majority of them children, fighting off hunger, parasites and pneumonia from the mountain cold at 7,000 feet above sea level. The refugees from Acteal are here with others from countless communities to which they cannot return.
Children of displaced families at the X'oyep encampment, to where refugees of the December 22, 1997 Acteal Massacre fled, in the Autonomous Municipality of Polho
photos D.R. 1998 Al Giordano
Polho has opened its hills to the desplazados because nobody else would. A base of support for the Zapatista cause, Polho and its refugees refuse to accept aid from the government. Their long experience with state and federal officials have taught them: the aid is only given for electoral purposes. Families who support the ruling PRI party, in towns that accept government aid, are given a slightly more stable standard of living, and soon convert into repressors, backed by the guns of the State, of those families who do not support the PRI.
The entrance to Polho is guarded by unarmed civilians 24-hours-a-day. There, the community has posted photographs taken by foreign observers when federal soldiers and state public security police ransacked the community's coffee fields, looted their crops and destroyed their collectively-owned equipment for processing the beans. Surrounded by military bases, Polho is daily besieged by low-flying helicopters and passing Army trucks, and there are regular raids by the military forces into the encampments themselves.
After the state police were implicated in the Acteal massacre, that agency pulled up stakes and left the Polho area, only to be replaced by a more intense federal military presence. When the state police left, they planted marijuana on the adjacent lands of the peasant farmers. When the locals discovered the seedlings sprouting out of the earth, the Zapatista authorities destroyed the plants immediately.
"We wanted to take photographs or video of what they had done," said Luciano, the community spokesman, who sports a red-and-gold kerchief over his face. "But, unfortunately, not a single person in this community owns a camera." Chabal Tak'in.
"It's certain that the same soldiers put the marijuana in his bag."
Spokesman for Autonomous Municipality of Polho, Chiapas
photos D.R. 1998 Al Giordano
Marcos Perez Perez is 17 or 18 years old, from Yabteclum, a village of subsistence farmers about five kilometers from Polho. His family, corn and bean farmers, speakers of Tzotzil, measure time according to the ancient Mayan calendar and not in Gregorian years: 17, or 18, they say. Nor do they know where Marcos, the youngest of six children, is today. They believe he is in the Cerro Hueco prison in the State Capital of Tuxtla Gutiérrez.
In January of 1998, a month after the Acteal massacre, Marcos put some beans and cornmeal in a bag and headed for the San Cristóbal market -- a 90 minute ride down the mountain -- to sell them. Small trucks charge 15 pesos, about two dollars, per rider for the journey. About half-way, at the municipal seat of Chenalhó, there's often a roadblock by military soldiers, sometimes accompanied by state police and immigration officials. As a Tzotzil Indian coming from the direction of Polho, Marcos knew that he and his bags would be searched. This happens every day to the natives.
Three months later, Marcos still had not returned to Yabteclum. His father, Marcos Perez Arias, and his older brother, Tomás Perez Perez, walked five kilometers to speak with this reporter about the young Marcos' situation. Luciano translated from Tzotzil to Spanish: "The father cannot speak because he is sick from the pressure of what has happened to his son. And so he's brought the older brother to speak for the family."
Luciano translates from the comments of Tomás and a few hoarse comments from the father, who suffers from some kind of throat infection. "The boy took some beans to San Cristóbal. On the road, he encountered federal soldiers who were there to check what he carried in his bag. He gave them his bag and the federal soldiers filled his bag with marijuana. The federal soldiers brought him to prison. They say the boy is a seller of marijuana. But it's certain that the same soldiers put the marijuana in his bag."
"The soldiers knew that he was part of the base of support for the Zapatistas," he continues. "The family doesn't know the exact date that it happened. They have another way of measuring dates. But it happened on a Monday about two months ago, that would be in January."
Marcos Perez Arias and son Tomás Perez Perez
photo D.R. 1998 Al Giordano
The popularly-elected Autonomous Municipal Counsel of Polho, for whom Luciano speaks, wrote a letter of support for Marcos Perez Perez. They told authorities that the boy had never been involved in using, growing or transporting drugs.
How could the members of the town council claim, with certainty, that a boy, any boy, was not involved with drugs?
"All the inhabitants of this autonomous municipality have their representatives in each community, one for about every 200 people. And this person has the name of each person in the community. These representatives maintain close control over their people. He or she has to know and is informed, 'How is this person?' We can know if someone is growing marijuana on his parcel or if he is buying it or using it. We know that the boy did not involve himself in this. There's a lot of vigilance within the community."
"Here, we don't permit the growing of marijuana, nor its consumption. If a young man grows marijuana, he goes before a municipal judge to be disciplined and oriented so that he won't ever do it again. If the youth does it again, there is no response whatsoever: he already cannot be pardoned a second time. He would then be expelled from the community."
Families in the Polho region live together, generally, in one room, tent or shack. The North American concept of privacy or a door on a teenager's bedroom, on even the parents' bedroom, if there is a bedroom, is a foreign concept here, as are developed-world concepts of personal privacy. A visitor to this community finds children coming in and out of his sleeping quarters at all hours, opening his bags -- not stealing anything, but curious to know and see everything.
"The young boy lived with his father and five brothers and sisters," Luciano continues. "His mother is already dead. The whole family works planting corn and beans. It's been his father's work his whole life. The family works together, planting. We would know if the boy was involved in something."
Human rights attorney Miguel Angel de Los Santos, in San Cristóbal, says the type of entrapment that the Tzotzil family believes was inflicted on their son is common practice in Chiapas. "The drug laws are a resource utilized by the authorities, many times by the state government, and a resource used by members of the official party -- the PRI -- to accuse its opponents," says the 1994 winner of the Reebok International Human Rights Award.
"At times when they want to take away your parcel of land, they will plant marijuana on your parcel. Then the police come to inspect and find the marijuana. They take the defendant from his home town to the state capital in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, where the majority of federal prisoners are kept for what are called 'crimes against the health.'"
"On other occassions they directly plant the evidence: they plant it in your bag. This commonly happens when there is a political difference, a dispute over terrain, etcetera. None of this can be considered by the judges," says the attorney.
Human Rights Attorney Miguel de Los Santos
photo D.R. 1998 Al Giordano
"Fundamentally, those they accuse are indigenous. They don't always know what the herb looks like. It's very easy to accuse someone -- a Tojolabal Indian, a Tzotzil, a Chol -- who doesn't know what it is. Then there are no possibilities for a defense. The indigenous person is accused. They say he imported the marijuana in his bag. And this, in legal terms, makes him responsible. When someone asks, 'Why did you bring marijuana in your bag? And where are you bringing it?' already the response sounds disingenuous because there is innocence. This, in judicial terms, doesn't have credibility. For a judge, the only thing he can do is formally apply the law. Under the law, if you have marijuana in your bag, you are already guilty of the crime. It doesn't matter how you got it."
"In Mexico, for small amounts like a marijuana cigarette or a little bit of cocaine, you can receive a slight punishment if you can show that you are addicted, and you have a quantity for personal use. You have to demonstrate it. But in these cases there is less punishment."
But as a result of the non-drug using culture among the indigenous of this region, says De Los Santos, "there are Choles, Tojolabales and Tzotziles in prison. There are others who are not indigenous but who are rural peasants also charged with this crime. The law considers these crimes to be serious."
"In Mexico there is a strange but interesting phenomenon," the attorney explains. "For example, when one goes on an airplane in the federal airport, the searches and vigilance are very intense. Yet, some months ago, a plane of the PGR -- the Attorney General's office -- was transporting cocaine from Tapachula to Mexico City. There is a connection between the police and the drug traffickers. They plant a little on an indígena, when extraordinary quantities are passing by, and these same police are involved in this."
Still, De los Santos adds, it is difficult to gain public support for drug prisoners, even those who were framed for their political views. "The human rights groups manage the question of drug crimes very cautiously. There is no systematic defense of these types of cases. If we came from the perspective of demanding total freedom for these prisoners, as we are demanding for the political prisoners, I think the human rights organizations couldn't do this. They could be attacked for it."
"The federal drug laws," concludes De los Santos, "are more a pretext to punish the population and to control the Zapatistas. It's evident who they seek in these communities while applying these laws. They're not looking for all the facts."
To Be Published Tomorrow:
The Colonel and His Troops
Preview from Part VII:
"They want a justification to persecute us. But we can say, without a doubt, that it is the same Army, the same Public Security Police, the same Judicial Police, who planted the marijuana."
-- Capitán Noe, Zapatista Army of National Liberation
Make an educated decision, based on the facts
Read Michael C. Ruppert's report on the Importance of Drug Money to the US Elections